Monday, 11 December 2017

Arctic Part 1 – Exploring Svalbard

Words and photos by Margaret Farrell

It’s coldish up here, ranging from daily maximum of 1 degree celsius to an incredibly warm 10 degrees. On the warm days, we shed layers like reptile skins.

Svalbard is a group of Norwegian islands that extend to just above 80 degrees north. If we went that far south in Antarctica we would be encased in ice but here, we are more likely to encounter bare earth, in what is known as a Polar Desert, with little snow to soften the starkness at this time of the year.

The most dramatic feature of this isolated group of islands in the Barents Sea is the enormous glacier front along the southern coast of Nordaustlandet (North-East Land), the second largest island in the group. It is fed by the icecap that covers most of the land mass. This monster glacier extends unbroken for 170 kms, forming a beautiful and dramatic backdrop to zodiacs and kayaks as we cruised no closer than 300 metres from its majestic heights. The 300-metre-limit is believed to make you safe from being hit or swamped by gigantic bergs breaking off from the parent.

We spent a morning admiring the fractured front of the glacier at Klerckbukta. The zodiacs crunched their way through the brash ice, dodged the bigger bergy-bits and maneuvered around the icebergs in all their blue and white beauty.

The sea was glassy calm and we reached an area where the water was like a mirror. Stunningly beautiful, and a great setting for our intrepid kayakers. They made for a colourful picture.

Later in the day we reached the Brasvelbreen section of the glacier. Whereas Klerckbuckta had been full of crevasses and great masses of fallen ice, Brasvelbreen at first sight is a 30-metre-high sheer wall of ice extending as far as you could see in both directions. 

On a closer look, this monolithic wall is full of melt water chutes. Water gushes out from the top of the glacier in some spectacular falls, and sometimes makes its way behind the scene and emerges lower down. The top of the wall looks like the parapet of a medieval fort, with notches at fairly regular intervals.

Our first experience of Svalbard glaciers was at Lilliehookbreen on Spitsbergen island where we found ourselves surrounded by a very active glacial front. There were plenty of rumblings as calving ice broke away from the glacier, sounding for all the world like a sizable thunderstorm.

As we made our way north of the 80-degree latitude we entered a vast field of sea ice. For two days, we crunched our way through, ever on the lookout for polar bears. We even drifted overnight in the hope that a curious bear would approach the Polar Pioneer.
Unfortunately, no bear appeared then but later, we watched (through binoculars) as a distant bear made three unsuccessful attempts to hunt seals. The first one he actually got his claws into the seal’s tail as it franticly turned to escape. One of our number caught that very short sequence on video.

A couple of days later, a bear was spotted in the distance and the ship made its way towards it as it swam between ice floes. Initially it swam away from us and all we could see was its head and an impressive wake as it powered through the water. The Polar Pioneer drifted for a while and the bear turned around and made its way towards the ship. Curiosity won out over caution, much to the delight of us all.

Blue Dot Travel takes small group tours to Svalbard and Iceland.  Click here for more details.

Monday, 4 December 2017

The incredible people of the Mursi Tribe

Mursi women wearing clay plates in their lips 

By Margaret Farrell

You probably know them by sight if not by name – the Mursi is one of the most fascinating tribes in Africa, widely recognised for the clay plates the women insert into their lower lips and sometimes their ear lobes. The tribe lives in the Omo Valley, one of the most isolated regions of southern Ethiopia near the border with South Sudan. According to the 2007 census, there are 7,500 Mursi who remain one of the last remaining tribes in Africa still to wear traditional dress, accessories and their renowned unique and elaborate headdresses.

Perhaps the custom of the lip plate was initially intended to discourage slavers from taking Mursi girls but nowadays, it is a status symbol and a cultural tradition to mark rites of passage. A girl’s lower lip is cut by her mother or by another woman of her settlement when she reaches the age of 15 or 16. The cut is held open by a wooden plug until the wound heals. It appears to be up to the individual girl to decide how far to stretch the lip by inserting progressively larger plugs over a period of several months. Some, but by no means all, girls persevere until their lips can take plates of 12 centimetres or more in diameter. The biggest disks are 15cms wide and must be incredibly uncomfortable to wear. Indeed they take them out to eat and to work except, of course, when tourists arrive with money to pay for photos. With no disk in place, the lower lip hangs down like a deflated inner-tube. It’s incredibly disfiguring and ensures that Mursi women cannot move out of the tribal area. I photographed an attractive 14-year-old in a blue wrap, thinking sadly that she will degenerate into an object of curiosity as she grows older.

The Mursi men, on the other hand, resort to body paint to distinguish themselves from other tribes. There is obviously no nudity taboo as they wear the briefest of hip wraps that casually expose everything at the slightest breeze. We stopped to film a group of boys who were dressed in nothing but white body paint. A popular and aggressive activity with men is the stick-fighting ceremony, the donga, which is a ritualized form of violence.

It’s a shame that tourism has made the lip plates a source of income for these people and all on our Ethiopia trip felt uneasy that we were contributing to their fate.

Regardless of my mixed feelings about the Mursi people, everyone choosing to visit Ethiopia should include the Omo Valley on their itinerary. 

Blue Dot Travel
offers Ethiopia small group tours so you can travel with us to this fascinating part of the world. Click here for details.

Map of Ethiopia
Mursi tribesman carrying kalashnikov rifle
Mursi tribesman in costume

Mursi tribes woman in costume
Mursi women, known for the plates worn in their lower lip and their elaborate headdresses

Monday, 27 November 2017

Gondar, Ethiopia - Once a city of emperors and princesses

Fasalida's Castle in the Fasil Ghebbi complex


One of northern Ethiopia's highlights is Gondar, an historical town that is home to some significant and truly unique sights. It is also a town where, depending on the time of year when visiting - you may see many Ethiopian Orthodox pilgrims near Timkat at what is known as the Ethiopian Epiphany (see our post on Timkat here). 

Some of the highlights from Gondar include the Debre Berhan Selassie Church, a 17th century stone church which has some of the best examples of religious paintings in the country and Fasilada's Bath, a complex thought to originally have been a holiday home for royalty. As the name suggests, it contains a large pool (filled with water specially for Timkat) which surrounds a beautiful structure that is shaded by gorgeous old trees, making for a nice peaceful spot to relax after exploring the town.

However, my personal favourite sight has to be that of Fasil Ghebbi, a royal enclosure built in the 17th century by Fasilada, the same Emperor for whom the bath is named. The complex houses numerous royal structures including a banquet hall, churches, stables and palaces, with the most impressive being Fasilada's Castle. Yes, a proper castle in Africa! It is an amazing building which has been well preserved and restored allowing you explore its interior details. You can't help but wonder what life was like living in the complex back in the day in all its grandeur. I'd also like to highly recommend a visit before dusk during what is called 'golden hour' to see the colours, shadows and warm light radiating around the castle and complex, really adding to the experience of the space.

Although only a small town Gondar is well worth the stop for its unique collection of architecture. Where else can you see a proper castle in Africa?

Gondar is just one of the highlights of our Small Group Tours to Ethiopia - Click here for more information.  Blue Dot Travel can also arrange Private Tours to Ethiopia.

Map of Ethiopia

Walking around the old part of Gondar, near Fasil Ghebbi

Fasilada's Bath

Fasilada's Bath
A shady spot at Fasilada's Bath

Fasil Ghebbi

Fasil Ghebbi

Fasil Ghebbi

Looking out from one of the palaces at Fasil Ghebbi

Inside Fasilada's Castle

Monday, 20 November 2017

Sipping wine in Georgia

With 8,000 years of history in winemaking, even the French regard Georgia as the home of viticulture
Story by Brod Brennan

Situated in the crossroads between East and West, the ancient country of Georgia is bordered by the Black Sea to the west while the Caucasus Mountains separate it from Russia to the north. Until 1991, Georgia was part of the Soviet Socialist Republic.

Following a recent trip to Bordeaux, I had the opportunity to visit Le Cite du Vin, a hub for wine veneration in this wonderful south western city of France. While there I was surprised to learn the French consider Georgia to be the home of viticulture. The oldest traces of wine dating back to the 6th millennium BC can be found in the archaeological items discovered in Georgia's Kartli region. Interestingly, these relics reveal that even back then, wine was made in much the same way as it is nowadays. 

Wine is an integral part of Georgian life. As our wonderful tour operator in Tbilisi says, In Georgia there is almost no meal without wine … and vice versa. 

For fans of natural winemaking, Georgia may well be the ultimate destination. Many of the vineyards have never had any synthetic chemicals sprayed on them; wines are often fermented and matured in huge clay amphoras – qvevri – buried up to their necks in the ground but perhaps most importantly, no additions whatsoever are made during the winemaking process. No yeast, no acid, no enzymes … just grapes! And come bottling, there is no fining, filtration or preservatives. It certainly tastes quite rustic to our palate but equally, full of charm and vitality.

This region also saw the discovery of fossils of the first hominid found outside Africa. Greek mythology has the Caucasus as the home of the Golden Fleece from Jason and the Argonauts while Christian history places Georgia as one of the first countries to convert to Christianity in the world in the early 4th century. 

If you love ancient history and enjoy a fine wine too, join Blue Dot Travel on our next small group tour to the Caucasus including Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. To find out more, click here.  When on one of our private tours to Georgia including Armenia and Azerbaijan, you may wish to try some of these wonderful wines.

Map of The Caucasus with Georgia to the north

Sighnaghi is in Georgia's easternmost region of Kakheti, a key winemaking area
Georgian wine is often fermented in huge clay amphora called qvevri

The qvevri are buried up to their necks in the ground for fermentation and maturation
Qvevri buried in the floor of the wine cellar
Chateau Mukhrani was founded 1878 by the Prince of Mukhrani of Georgia's royal family
Abandoned during the former Soviet Union, the castle and domain was completely renewed in 2003
In Georgia, there is almost no meal without wine ... and vice versa!

Monday, 13 November 2017

Etosha National Park, Namibia

Story and photos by Brett Goulston 

Many people who have travelled to Namibia’s Etosha National Park rate it as the best wildlife-spotting destination in Southern Africa. Having recently taken a trip to Namibia with a small group myself, I have to agree.  

Etosha is an enormous National Park – about 22,000 square kms, or about 1/3 the size of Tasmania. To see the park properly and to ensure you have the best chance to experience the variety of wildlife, you do need to move around. There are a few safari lodges on both the eastern and western sides of the park and a hamlet in the middle called Hilali. Over three nights, we stayed in all three different regions and while the effort in moving each day is a bit of a hassle, the rewards were, without any doubt, totally worth it.  

Over three days in September, which is the dry season, we spotted all the major wildlife attractions we had hoped to see ... and in abundance. This included elephants galore, inquisitive giraffes who didn’t mind us getting close, many lions (including one with a cub), rhinos, leopards, kudu, dik-dik, wildebeest, zebra, springboks, jackals, hyenas and the list goes on.  

However, the highlight, thanks to our amazing Namibia travel guide, was getting close to a cheetah. This  was my first sighting in the wild of this magnificent big cat and, in fact, it was a highlight for all us. 
With binoculars in hand, our guide spotted a lone male about 2kms away (they have an amazing eye for this kind of thing). We were watching a lion when he said… “everyone sit, we have to go now”. We weren’t sure what was going on but a few bumpy minutes later and we had ourselves a cheetah – up close!  

Namibia is a wonderful, unique country. There are many great things to see and do but for me, the wildlife at Etosha – and the cheetah in particular – were the highlights.   

Place it on your bucket list. Join Blue Dot Travel on our small group tour to Victoria Falls, Botswana, Namibia and Cape Town.  Click here to find out details for our next tour in May 2018.

Monday, 6 November 2017

Cuba - a little piece of socialism in the Caribbean

 Holidays in Cuba are colourful to say the least

Many tourists come to Cuba to seek out the gorgeous beaches on the north coast but for me, it was the unique vibrancy of the people that drew me to this little piece of socialism in the Caribbean. Cubans have a real sense of pride in their country’s defiance of the American capitalists who sit a mere 90 miles away from Havana’s harbour.

Despite the lifting of some travel embargoes by the US administration, Cuba is still very much an emerging tourism destination. Spanish money has flowed into the capital vacuum created by the Americans and the Spaniards have done a wonderful job renovating some of the luxurious historic hotels such as the Hotel Sevilla. Set in the Old Town in a 1908 Moorish-style building, this elegant hotel is a minute's walk from Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana-Cuba and 3 minutes on foot from the Museum of the Revolution. You get a wild Humphrey Bogart flashback in this kind of place and having a drink at the bar is just a wonderful experience. 

Recent changes to private ownership laws has seen a flourishing of small businesses and as a result, the country is rife with experimentation. Homes are being opened up for home stays and others turned into family-run restaurants. Large 1950s-era Buicks roam the streets of Old Town Havana seeking out anyone needing a lift. There are no seat belts or meters and in a world so wrapped up in regulation, the freedom is liberating. From rural ViƱales to urban Havana, it’s as if the whole country is slowly awakening from a deep slumber. There’s rarely been a better time to join a Blue Dot Travel small group tour to travel Cuba.  We also include Costa Rica, Guatemala & Honduras when exploring this region. To find out more click here

 Blue Dot Travel tour map
A salute to Che Guevara

The Conversation, by French sculptor Etienne, Plaza San Francisco de Asisi

Old Cuban bus

Vinales Valley in western Cuba

Beautiful old cars in Cuba

Cobblestone streets of Trinidad east of Havana Cuba

Old Cuban architecture

Take a ride in an old Buick